STATE OF THE ART PART I: The Industry

My wife is a songwriter. We have many friends who make a living in the music business. Whenever we talk with them about the music biz, I am struck by the similarities it has with commercial publishing.

One friend of ours, who is actually a very successful commercial songwriter, puts it like this: “They are continually skimming from the top inch of the stagnant corner of the pond.”

Music industry moguls are looking to repeat yesterday’s successes. We have actually heard one of them say: “we are looking for something just like [a popular song], only different.”

Welcome to the blending of art and business in a tough economic climate. My experience of book publishing has been similar. I had an acquisitions editor rave about my novel, Superior Justice, and then turn it down because I don’t have a celebrity platform that will make the book sell itself.

Three agents paid high compliments to my writing, but passed anyway. When I talk to other authors – even successful, published writers – I hear the same thing. No one wants to take a risk on new ideas or new authors unless it is already a sure thing. Otherwise, they relentlessly re-hash the same product time and again.

But there is good news.

The music industry has violently changed in the past few years. By large, it was the internet that did it, along with massive leaps forward in cheap recording and production technology. It used to be that to have any hope of developing a fan base, a recording artist needed to spend $20K-$50K on an album. In addition, that money was totally wasted without the promotion muscle of a major recording label behind it.

Today, however, an artist can record on digital systems that cost under two thousand dollars, and come out with sound quality that Elvis could never have dreamed of, for all his millions. In addition, they can post their songs on the internet and build a fan base that simply would not have been commercially viable before.

The book publishing industry is not there yet, but it isn’t far behind either. Production of the core product has never been very expensive. All you need is time and a typewriter. The final books, however, were not very cheap unless they were mass-produced by the thousands. Technology has changed that. With Print-On-Demand (POD) books can be printed one at a time, as customers order them. These books still end up being a little more expensive to produce than a mass-run, but the price continues to go down as innovative companies adjust their business models.

Like with the music industry, the proliferation of the internet has also begun to radically change the landscape for prospective authors. New authors can build a fan base one person at a at time. A niche of fans that might be too small for a publishing house to pursue, could be found and developed by individual authors – all through the internet.

I’m not saying it is easy, but I am saying it has been done, and will be done more and more.

What I am particularly excited to see, is the development of electronic readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Right now, a relatively small number of people use these. But as those numbers increase, so do the possibilities for authors.

Again, this has been foreshadowed by the music industry. Mp3 players and Ipods were once novelties with almost no market share. Now, fewer and fewer CD’s are produced each year, as consumers download more and more music directly from the internet.

There may come a time when all you need to produce a marketable book is the digital file that will be distributed to those types of electronic readers. This makes the sale of a book all profit (not counting the author’s time, of course). The e-reader distributors will require a share, obviously, but since there is no actual cost to make a physical book, the author should get what remains.

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